Magic may help his village, but can he pay the price?
| Ronan of Clandor jerked awake, nearly falling from his horse, as the caravan came to a sudden halt. The group's leader, a stocky man with a full beard named Rendal, approached him where he rode at the end of the caravan.
"We'll be watering the horses at the stream here, then taking the western road to Zeltar. If you're still determined to go to Clandor, you have another four-hour ride north from here. It's up to you of course, but you're more than welcome to come with us."
"Thank you, Rendal, but I'll be leaving you here. I certainly appreciate all you've done for me."
"I can't imagine why anyone would want to go to Clandor anyway, but you've been a big help to us these past few months, well worth the horse and the food you've allowed us to give you. Are you sure we can't persuade you to stay?"
"Yes, quite sure, and please thank everyone for their help and hospitality. I will miss all of you, but I must return to my home and my friends."
As the caravan moved away, Ronan sat by the stream for a few minutes while his horse drank and grazed, reflecting on his life over the last year. It was early autumn when the first signs of trouble had appeared. He and his beloved Jendra had been walking near the village center when they heard the distant buzzing sound. Looking up and to the west, they saw the massive black cloud of the swarm settling in on the fields, ready for harvest.
Jendra screamed, "Ronan, my family is there. We have to help them!" and began running directly toward the menacing cloud. Ronan quickly followed, knowing already that it was too late to save the harvest but determined to prevent any harm to Jendra and her family.
By the time they reached her farm, the damage they had expected to find had now become total devastation. The fields were stripped clean, the animals dead, and the house nearly destroyed. Jendra moved toward the house, but Ronan called out stopping her.
"Jendra, over here!" was all he could say as he dropped to his knees beside two bloodied bodies. Jendra's screams and wails at the sight of her parents bodies would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Over the next two weeks, the true scope of the destruction became clear. While Jendra's younger brother, Sando, had escaped injury, many of their neighbors had been bitten by the insects as they ran for their homes. After three days the sickness had come upon all who had been bitten and all of them had died. The village was destroyed, and despair swept through the hearts of the few who remained in the ruined village.
For the next month Ronan had given all he had in helping the sick and repairing homes, but as winter grew closer, it became clear that more was needed. He had heard stories from traveling merchants of a powerful wizard, far to the south, who wielded incredible magic, and Ronan decided he must seek him out and beg him for the help that the village so desperately needed.
Jendra had wanted to go with him but understood she had to stay to care for her brother, so Ronan set off alone as the cool winds began to blow, a clear signal of what was soon to follow. There were few horses left in Clandor, so Ronan was on foot with only a few meager supplies in his pack.
After two weeks, his food nearly gone, he came across a farm that had nearly completed the harvest but needed some help for the last of it. He had offered his help for two weeks in exchange for some food, blankets and other provisions for his journey. His offer was readily accepted and he spent the time doing whatever was needed including some long overdue household repairs.
Though he ate his meals with the farmer and his family, Ronan rarely spoke other than to thank them each day for their kindness and hospitality. He spent each night in the barn having politely refused their offer of the use of a spare room in the house. Though his work during the day never suffered, the lonely nights in the barn began to wear heavily on him and he began to question if he had done the right thing in leaving the village when they needed his help the most.
After the agreed-upon two weeks had passed, Ronan collected the provisions received from the farmer and resumed his journey to find the wizard. Though the weather had mostly been clear, his reason for this journey was not. He asked himself repeatedly why any sane man would leave his home and his friends to go on this fool's errand. And yet he continued, hoping that he could find the wizard that he was no longer sure even existed.
It was nearly three weeks later that he entered a small town and began hearing bits of conversation about a strange old hermit that lived just outside the town. People seemed to fear the old man, blaming him for everything from bad weather to spoiled food, so Ronan decided this may be the wizard he was looking for. A woman reluctantly told him where to find the old man, but included a stern warning to stay as far away as possible. Ronan thanked her and set off in the direction the woman had given him.
After leaving the town, he spent several hours searching the forest for the wizard's cottage. With only an hour of sunlight remaining, he found the small cottage in a clearing, but could not bring himself to approach it, deciding to spend the night in the dark forest even though a storm was approaching from the west. As he had once again used the last of his provisions, he spent the night cold, wet, and hungry, getting very little sleep and wondering what he would say to this man who may not even be the wizard he sought.
About an hour after first light, he saw the door to the cottage open and the old man walked with a bucket toward the well. As he attached the bucket to the rope and began to lower it into the well, Ronan approached him.
"Excuse me, sir. I know this may seem strange to you, but I have heard of a powerful wizard who lives near here. Is it possible that you could be that wizard?"
"Do I look like a wizard to you?. The old man replied.
"I am so sorry to disturb you, sir.", Ronan replied, turning to leave, disappointed but not at all surprised.
"Hold on there, boy. You didn't answer my question. Do I look like a wizard to you?"
Ronan turned and said, "Well, I guess I have no idea what a wizard looks like, so I wouldn't know if you look like one."
"And yet, you were ready to leave without knowing if you found what you were looking for. Here, take this bucket of water and carry it into the house for me and pour it in the cauldron."
Ronan carried the bucket inside and poured it into the cauldron hanging in the fireplace and was about to ask if he was indeed a wizard, when the old man pointed at the wood in the fireplace which immediately began to burn. Certain, now that this was the wizard, Ronan was about to ask about the help his village needed, when the wizard spoke.
"Plenty of time for that after we eat, boy. Now grab that ladle and fill these bowls with that stew."
"But, that's just water and even that hasn't had time to..." Ronan stopped as he turned to see a boiling cauldron of stew over the fire. He quietly began filling the bowls as directed, sat down with the old man and ate what was probably the best stew he had ever had. After the meal, the wizard pushed his chair back and began to speak.
The kind of magic you are looking for requires a price, though I can't tell you what that price will be. Are you willing to pay that price?
Ronan thought about the pain and suffering he had seen and what must by now, be so much worse, and could give no other answer.
"Yes.", he replied.
With that the wizard ushered him to the door, pointing east and saying, "Well, you'd best be going then. There's a merchant caravan about a mile in that direction that will take you with them in exchange for helping out when they camp". With that he shut the door and left a stunned Ronan standing there.
He found the caravan, and as promised was allowed to ride with them in exchange for helping with the many duties required by such a large group. They had even given him a horse as an extra bonus for being so helpful. Now, after months of travel, stopping at many small towns and villages along the way, he found himself only hours from home with questions beginning to press heavily on his mind.
Had he been taken in by some trickster, posing as a wizard? Would he find even more pain and misery than when he left? If the man really was a wizard, what price would the magic require? As these and more questions continued to fill his mind, he found himself approaching the village of Clandor that he had left so long ago. What he saw amazed him.
Now Spring, the fields appeared to be in the process of being planted and the buildings seemed to have no damage. He even began to see people that he knew had died after being bitten by the insects, including Jenna's parents. When he saw Jenna, he dismounted and ran to her, but stopped short when he saw her take a step back.
"I'm sorry, do I know you?", she said."
Suddenly realizing that not one person he knew had come up to him, he understood the price of the magic.
"No", he replied, "I'm sorry. I mistook you for someone else."
As she walked away, Ronan began to feel the full weight of the price fall upon him. The village was safe, and Jendra and her family were safe but he was alone. Of course, he had always felt alone until, that is, he had met Jendra. A whole new world had opened up to him then, but now all of that was gone. He would go on, doing the best he could to help any who may need him. He would bear the price because it was worth it, but his life would never be the same.
Over the next few days, Ronan began looking for work, and though there were few who had any real needs, he found some willing to pay for help on the farms or in the village. After a couple of months, as he had begun to settle into his solitary life, he was eating his dinner alone as usual, when there was a knock at his boarding house door. When he opened the door, there stood Jendra.
"I'm sorry to bother you", she said, "but I've heard some very strange things about you from some traveling merchants recently and I would really like to know the truth. You seem to be the kind of man who would tell the truth if he were asked. Would you walk with me for a while?"
Without a word, but with a smile on his face, Ronan followed Jendra out the door.